Corporate Couch Time

Deck: Companies Call on Shrinks to Find the Psychological Roots of Management Problems

 “Heads of companies come to me and describe one very specific problem, but often it turns out that the presenting issue is a gateway to other, deeper, systemic issues.” — Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder and president, the Boswell Group

At a time when people are popping Prozac to treat emotional ills, a new class of clients is seeking more traditional couch time: corporations. But don’t expect to overhear CEOs swapping shrink stories just yet. One specialist in the new field of psychoanalytic management consulting, Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz of New York, believes he has fewer than two dozen counterparts nationwide.

Sulkowicz’s firm, the Boswell Group, has assembled a client list of entrepreneurial companies, Internet startups, family businesses, even a traditional management-consulting firm. He and his group of nine affiliated executive coaches and consultants help clients uncover the behavioral roots of productivity problems, corporate culture clashes, hiring miscues and other management headaches.

Such corporate intervention typically involves an initial session with the CEO, talks with other key employees and on-the-job observation. Like individual therapy, the work of corporate shrinks can take a few sessions, a few months or longer, typically concluding when the initial problems have been addressed and the client feels better able to understand the psychology of running a business.

In case you’re wondering, the “Boswell” in the firm’s name is Sulkowicz’s Jack Russell terrier, who in turn was named for James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson.

Is this a fairly new phenomenon? How did psychoanalysts wind up in the business of advising corporations?
I don’t think the need for this is any greater than it has ever been, but in recent years there have been a number of analysts who have found that applying these ideas to business is a growth area. Three or four years ago, the American Psychoanalytical Association started an ad hoc committee on corporate and organizational consulting. This is a growing trend, but still a small niche of people trained psychoanalytically to understand behavior in a company  It’s a fairly natural extension of the business, and something that’s becoming more recognized. There’s a trend overall in business where more leaders are open to looking at the psychological side of their business. I’m not sure why this is, but you can look in the business press and you’ll see more and more articles addressing business psychology.

How can a CEO recognize that his or her company is “sick” and needs the help of a psychoanalyst?
When a company finds itself bogged down in bureaucracy, when a company has young and inexperienced leadership, or when a leader has a good vision but is having trouble implementing it. When a leadership team has lots of bright people but has trouble delegating, often that has a psychological component.

I’m reluctant to call it a sick or dysfunctional company. It might scare people off. And I’m not out there trying to diagnose a company or individual. I’m not looking for pathology. In fact, these often tend to be healthy companies that have leaders who are relatively psychology-minded to begin with.

Can you share how you’ve helped specific clients?
Heads of companies come to me and describe one very specific problem, but often it turns out that the presenting issue is a gateway to other, deeper, systemic issues. One company engaged us because they were growing rapidly and had to do a lot of hiring. They were hiring on impressions without paying a lot of attention to matching people with job descriptions.

They asked me to look at their hiring process and help the management team learn how to interview better. I did a workshop with the managers to help them learn to read between the lines and be more predictive.

I asked them to take notes on their interviews, and we went over them in a microscopic way. We looked at how the person responded to questions, whether they responded directly or evasively, whether there were signs of anxiety, whether there were inconsistencies or suggestions that a person was running away from an idea or maybe running away from work if it was getting stressful. It’s an adaptation of how I would work with a patient.

The person who founded the company was very much an entrepreneur and as the company was growing he was sensing that he might not be able to make the change from entrepreneurial to corporate leadership. The second part of my work was consulting with him over several months to help him to make the transition to a new kind of leadership.

I worked individually with the leader of the organization to help him see various ways he was holding on to his control. I helped him to let go of control over several different areas of the business and helped him see that he could trust the people working for him. It really involved him saying he could trust his own judgment, too, because he had hired all of these executives himself.

He got money from a very traditional, conservative foreign company, which sent someone to oversee the management. The culture of the foreign company was the antithesis of the cutting-edge culture the founder wanted to create. They had a culture with wild, creative people running around and doing inventive things, with a staid, buttoned-down, conservative man in a corner office overseeing things.

A lot of the executive team had been very reluctant to spend time with him. They saw him and assumed he was unapproachable. But I spent a lot of time with him and got to know him, and I realized that there was probably more in common than was assumed.

So the third part of the consultation involved bringing that out on the table and addressing it rather than having it operating under the table. I wound up acting as a kind of mediator; I told the other side what I was learning. Gradually, I brought them together in a series of meetings. They found out that he was not quite as buttoned-down as he appeared and he realized that the Americans were not as wild as they appeared.

I’ve worked with several Internet startups. One common issue is helping fairly young management teams learn about people skills. They tend to be bright and have boundless energy but not much leadership experience. I have helped young leaders see the need for paying more attention to the interpersonal side of the business. I served as sort of an assistant to them, helping them in weekly meetings to listen to what’s being said between the lines by their management team, by being a kind of translator for what’s going on emotionally in the team. I taught them how to listen, how to communicate more effectively, how to build structures that allow more horizontal communication. In some cases I’ve recommended bringing in some people with gray hair.

Is this like organizational psychology or organizational behavior?
That approach is very different. The field of organizational behavior has long been involved in working with HR departments. These people tend to focus on things like workplace safety, career counseling, guidance, and they do a lot of standardized testing.

My approach is focused on the idea that companies may have a mind of their own. There are forces at play that are largely out of the awareness of the people working there. A company might benefit from it as it grows up to compete in a rapidly changing economy. It may be a way of covering all the bases and becoming aware of the psychological forces at play.

I do a variety of things, ranging from management culture studies to studies of the company’s culture as a whole to make it more productive. Another thing is executive coaching for the leadership of an organization, helping CEOs learn new psychological strategies to add to their functioning as CEOs, running management teams, delegating. I also do straightforward consulting to companies on different aspects of business with psychological underpinnings, including marketing and advertising.

What sets me apart from traditional consulting is that my training and experience allow me to understand some of the covert processes at work in an organization, the aspects that are operating outside the awareness of most of the participants. There are psychological underpinnings that traditional consultants no doubt run up against but may not have the training to tease out from the observable information.

How do clients find you, and how much do these services cost?
I have a Web site,, and I get a fair amount of interest from it. I don’t have any data on hits, but if I look at my practice I’ve got a lot of work that keeps me very busy. People have also found me through word of mouth and through my speaking and writing.

In terms of cost it’s similar to paying a partner of a law firm or a management-consulting firm. In terms of the amount of money that can be saved if a company can avoid mistakes, my fees are pretty reasonable.

Related Links: American Psychoanalytic Association